CAIRO, Egypt — A sea of bobbing heads hoisting Egyptian flags high spilled out of Tahrir Square as drivers pulled their cars over on the October 6 Bridge to watch the scene below. A long procession of others walked down Ramses Street in the direction of the presidential palace.
We’ve covered a lot of protests in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, but the last time we’d seen anything on this massive scale was in the days following Jan. 25, 2011, when the revolution started against him.
As night fell today, it quickly became clear the size of the June 30 protests by opponents of President Mohammed Morsi would eclipse those seen during the revolution. Egypt’s CBC cable channel showed a split-screen of high shots of the various protests, each box revealing a staggering number of Egyptians walking and chanting.
It’s impossible to confirm, but a military source told the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper that millions had taken to the streets in the biggest protests Egypt has ever seen. It’s easy to believe.
On the road to the palace this afternoon, the mass of humanity stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. It was a brain-rattling cacophony of car honking, megaphones and chants. Men, women and children of all stripes were out to protest Morsi’s first year in office and his inability to get Egypt back on track.
“A year, he did nothing for this year,” Ghada Ahmd said. “He is not even trying. He is doing everything for his Muslim Brotherhood group. Not for Egypt, not for Egyptians. He is ignoring everything.”
A few miles away in Nasr City, the Muslim Brotherhood held a far smaller rally in support of Morsi. Most protests these days have civilian security but this was really something. Several rings of serious looking men, mostly bearded, many wearing construction helmets and holding clubs.
The clubs (later we saw nunchucks, chains and batons) were just for defense, we were told repeatedly. But when several groups of young Brothers ran through the crowd with their sticks in the air, shouting, you’d be forgiven for thinking they might perhaps eventually be used to offensively crack some liberal/secular skulls.
The rally was meant to show how peaceful Morsi supporters are, Hossam Ramadan, an English high school teacher told us. And to counter the opposition’s argument that Egyptians’ are worse off now than they were under Mubarak.
“We would like to give Dr. Morsi the full chance to achieve our hopes and to gather all the Egyptian people in one hand,” he said in impressively fluent English.
The Brothers had their talking points down pat: Morsi’s only had a year, give him more time. How can democracy flourish after such a short period? No other democratic country would call for the ouster of its president so soon after he/she took office.
The rally ran hot and cold. Many were happy to see a western media outlet, since the opposition usually gets most of the attention.
“You are most welcome in Egypt,” a stream of demonstrators said warmly.
Others were more skeptical, and became downright hostile when we filmed a group of ultra-conservative Salafists holding what is commonly referred to as the al Qaeda flag.
“We will spill our blood for the sake of Islam,” the black-clad men chanted into our microphones.
“Why are you focusing on them?” several irate Brothers demanded, fearful that yet another western outlet would lump them in with the extremist fringes of Islam.
We’re not focusing on them, we insisted, we’ve filmed everyone else and spoken with a number of people.
We didn’t loiter.
Tonight was not void of violence. There are reports of at least five killed in protests outside Cairo as well as an attack on the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the capital. Egypt has never been so divided and the warnings of a civil war still loom large. Change must come to Egypt, but the answers of how and when remain as elusive forever.
But at least for tonight, Egypt appears to have avoided the wide scale bloodshed many feared would arise from today’s protests.